Getting to the Galápagos Islands is not the easiest of travel tasks. The Pacific Ocean archipelago lies about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, with 19 islands and dozens of small islets spread across both sides of the equator. Visitors must first travel to Quito or Guayaquil and arrange a flight to one of the Galápagos airports on Baltra or San Cristóbal. The islands are run by the Galápagos National Park Service, and an official Park Service naturalist guide is required for sailing to any of the islands. Keeping a remote, precious ecosystem in pristine condition requires constant vigilance and regulation.
Herb and I chose the 100-passenger Celebrity Flora for our Galápagos home away from home. We booked flights from Los Angeles to Miami and then from Miami to Quito. It’s a long trek from California, but the time difference is only two hours. Quito runs on U.S. Central Time, and our Galápagos ship, while technically on U.S. Mountain Time, stayed in the Quito time zone. Most of the flights between the U.S. and Quito are scheduled extremely late or early, but our mid-morning Miami to Quito flight was a welcome exception.
I think we must have read every available article, blog and message board post about how to pack for the Galápagos. We were each allowed one checked bag of no more than 44 pounds and one carry-on of 15 pounds. When we arrived in Quito, we were told the carry-on could be as heavy as 22 pounds, and we later discovered that the carry-ons were not actually weighed. Packing for travel is a personal decision, but if I could recommend three essentials for the Galápagos, it would be closed-toed water shoes, sturdy hiking shoes or trail runners and a safari-style hat with a chin strap.
Arriving in Quito
A friendly Celebrity representative met us at the airport and arranged a car for the 45-minute drive to the JW Marriott Hotel. Each couple or group had its own car due to Covid protocols. We were required to wear KN95 masks during our stay in Quito, and when we arrived at the hotel, the first order of business was getting our assigned time for a Covid PCR test. With negative results, we would be permitted on the planned city tour the next morning.
The Marriott had a veritable clinic set up, with four curtained testing stations in a separate area of the hotel. Herb and I had recently received our second booster vaccines and were feeling fine, but there is always the nagging thought of what if the test is positive? We’ve traveled all this way. The testing operated on a “no news is good news” protocol, and we crossed our fingers that no one would be tracking us down at the hotel the next morning.
Quito Day 2
With negative Covid tests behind us, I felt a little lighter as we headed out on the city tour. Groups of about ten were assigned a guide and tour bus. We stayed together like a little Covid pod, sitting with our group at designated tables for lunch and dinner. This pandemic protocol was designed to keep us as safe as possible, but it turned out to be a great way to get to know people early on.
Later that night we were required to bring our checked bags – unlocked – to the Celebrity Desk for early morning inspections by the Galápagos Agricultural Authorities. The inspectors would be looking for food times – fruits, flowers, seeds or any organic material – that could result in the introduction of new species to the islands. I had envisioned specially trained dogs sniffing for suspicious contraband, but when we went downstairs for breakfast, we noticed that everyone’s luggage had been placed on folding tables surrounded by human inspectors sifting through each bag.
On to Baltra
With our luggage officially inspected, we were assigned a time for another Covid test, this one a rapid antigen variety that would determine our fate for actually traveling to the Galápagos. By the end of breakfast, we had heard nothing, and I’m fairly certain that a very large collective sigh of relief could be heard throughout the hotel!
Our two-hour flight was a non-stop charter on Avianca Airlines. We were assigned seats in sections near our city tour travel group, and I was delighted to have a window for viewing this long-awaited journey. The Galápagos…finally!
After the meal service and shortly before we were scheduled to land, a most unusual announcement echoed throughout the cabin:
“And now the flight crew will fumigate the aircraft!”
Before I could even process what fumigate could possibly entail, three flight attendants began marching down the aisle in military-like precision, with the first person opening each overhead bin, followed by the second who sprayed something from a can into the bin, followed by the third who closed the bin.
I grabbed my phone and snapped a quick photo as they were returning to the front of the plane, repeating the opening-spraying-closing maneuver on the other side of the aisle. If there had been any speck of a banned substance on this aircraft, it didn’t have a chance of reaching the Galápagos.
Soon green patches of islands appeared out my window. The plane began to descend, heading for the runway. “We’re here!” I practically shouted to Herb. And then suddenly the plane changed course, heading skyward. Windy conditions had forced the pilot to turn around and try to land on the runway again. Apparently this is not an uncommon phenomenon on Baltra Island, but being first-time visitors, we all broke into a cheer when the pilot’s second attempt was successful.
The Celebrity Flora
After picking up our luggage and going through airport security, we boarded zodiacs – often referred to as pangas in the Galápagos, or tenders, as Celebrity calls them – for the short ride to the ship. Checked luggage was placed on a separate zodiac and delivered to our cabins. Once on board, we were permitted to remove our masks for the rest of the week. Crew members were warm and welcoming, serving glasses of champagne and a huge dose of good cheer.
Herb and I unpacked our bags, settled into our cabin and explored the public areas of the ship. After all the months of planning and researching and navigating our way through protocols and regulations, we were finally here. The first expedition would begin in the morning, and we were oh-so ready.